How Science Works - And How It Doesn't

By W. Hunter Lesser

The West Virginia Archeologist Volume 41, Number 1, Spring 1989

© 1983 WV Archeology Society, used with permission

But this alone I know full well, I do not love thee, Dr. Fell. - Thomas Brown 1663-1704

The controversy over the interpretation of incised lines on rock shelter walls in Southern West Virginia as early Celtic Ogam inscriptions has raged on now since 1983. Flying in the face of logic, these ideas have captured the public fancy. As well they might. Science, done right, is not usually exciting to the public and media. That's unfortunate. At fault lies the lack of critical thinking by much of the public, perhaps a result of ineffective efforts at science education in our schools, and the poor efforts of most scientists in popularizing their subject fields.

How does science work? Every high school graduate should have been exposed to the "scientific method," a general set of rules to be used when dealing with problems or unknowns. The steps follow this general form:
    1. Recognizing a problem or unknown.
    2. Forming a preliminary hypothesis to explain it.
    3. Acquiring additional data through observation and experimentation.
    4. Forming a new hypothesis.
    5. Testing the new hypothesis for its explanatory or predictive value.

Steps 3 and 4 may be repeated many times before we get to step 5. Additional data or facts often force us to modify a hypothesis, all the while acquiring more data and forming another hypothesis. The "final" hypothesis might still be tentative in the eyes of the scientist. That's the way science works. The discipline is not perfect, unfortunately, and often frustrating to the general public and media who want a dogmatic "fact." But the test of time shows it is the best approach to gaining proof of an idea. (Cazeau and Scott 1979: 3-4).

An excellent example of the scientific method at work involves recent investigations of early Spanish exploration and settlement in the Southeastern United States. Archeologists and historians utilizing the scientific method have conducted research and published their findings in various professional journals. Fortunately, this fascinating research has been condensed and published in a popular format for all to read and understand. (See, Judge, Exploring Our Forgotten Century, National Geographic, March 1988.) This is one example of science at its best.

Unfortunately, we have a good example of how not to do science right here in West Virginia. I have previously discussed the use of pseudoscience or "cult archeology" in the interpretation of certain West Virginia petroglyphs as Celtic Ogam (Lesser, 1983). Pseudoscience though not science at all, does tend to follow patterns. (Cazeau and Scott 1979: 4-13). Let's look at some common patterns of pseudoscience involved in the petroglyph articles.

False assumption - A writer will often make statements he regards as true. However, sufficient evidence exists to cast serious doubt on the validity of the statements. We call these false assumptions. In this case one man, Dr. Barry Fell, is the medium for interpreting all the "Ogam" inscriptions. He works in a vacuum, without assistance or critique from other recognized experts. In fact, he has no formal training in linguistics. His doctorate is in marine biology. He never even visited the West Virginia sites, but relied on photographs of chalk-lined interpretations from some interested individuals who had no formal training in linguistics or archeology either.

Factual error - If a reader spots an error of fact, there is a temptation to be wary of everything else the writer says. Barry Fell has "translated" Ogam inscriptions all over America. Yet recognized European linguistic experts claim there is no Ogam outside the British Isles. Indeed it was short-lived and uncommon even there. Dr. Fell interprets his "Ogam" without vowels and draws on forms of Iberian, Norse, Semitic and other unrelated languages in his interpretations. Yet Ogam did have vowels. In short, it's easy to give any random marks an Ogam interpretation under his rules. (Goddard and Fitzhugh, 1978; Stephen Williams, personal communication, 1983; Gallagher, 1983: 8-11; Fell, 1983)

Distortion - The Grave Creek tablet and the Newark Decalogue tablet are used as examples of Hebrew and South Iberian inscriptions to support the claims of early Irish visitors to West Virginia. But both tablets have long been recognized as frauds. (Whittlesey 1872, 1876, 1879).

Innuendo - An innuendo implies something that is not necessarily evident from the facts. It is commonly used by Barry Fell and his supporters. The finding of crucifixes at Indian sites in America is used to suggest (in a roundabout fashion) that ancient Celtic visitors left them here (Pyle, 1986: 28-31). But we know that goods were traded to coastal Indians by early European explorers and fishermen soon after Columbus' landing. Many of these items were in turn traded by coastal Indians to groups further inland who had ever laid eyes on a European. For example, excavations near Romney, West Virginia, have uncovered European trade items such as Basque earrings, copper ornaments and iron at a protohistoric Indian village dating to A.D. 1550 plus or minus 25 years (Brashler, 1987).

Appeal to authority - Certain arguments can be bolstered by calling upon an authority or expert. This is good, but one must be careful to note if the expert's testimony coincides with his or her field of expertise. In this case, interested amateurs contacted Dr. Barry Fell to decipher the petroglyphs. As we discussed above, Dr. Fell is a noted retired professor emeritus of marine biology at Harvard. He is not an ancient language expert as often claimed (Lesser, 1983).

Appeal to pity - This approach usually depicts the author as pitting himself against the "establishment" of orthodox science. Barry Fell and his collaborators often suggest that professional archeologists and historians refuse to accept new ideas of pre-Columbian visitors to America. Not true. Based on solid archeological and historical evidence, we now know that there was a Norse settlement at the site of L'Anse aux Meadows in northern Newfoundland, dated about A.D. 1000. At present, this is the only accepted case of pre-Columbian European contact in North America (Goddard and Fitzhugh, 1978: 9). Scientists are always ready to accept new ideas if the evidence is solid, tested by the checks and balances of the scientific method and subjected to the critique of fellow scholars.

I could give more examples of these and other patterns of pseudoscience in the West Virginia petroglyph research such as contradiction, speculation and the use of irrelevant data (Cazeau & Scott, 1979: 4-13). But I hope the difference between science and pseudoscience is clear by now. The "true believers," those well-meaning but misguided folk who advance the idea of ancient Irish visitors in West Virginia, are sincere in their belief. But they ignore overwhelming contrary evidence as they grasp for any tidbit to buttress their claims. And they are misleading the public.

The Man Gorget
Figure 1: The Man Gorget, Logan County
Photo courtesy of West Virginia Archeology Society
Now, more than three years after its publication, I present the additional "evidence" for early Celtic visitors yet (Figure 1). This shell gorget was recovered from the Man Site (46LG5) in Logan County by members of the West Virginia Archeological Society. It was illustrated on the cover of the spring 1985 West Virginia Archeologist. If I were a "true believer" in early Celtic visitors, I would say in a heartbeat that it illustrates an Irish Monk. Never mind that it could represent a turtle or some other stylized object (as such late Prehistoric shell gorgets often do), or that the site where it was discovered consists of a Fort Ancient village dating about A.D. 1450 (Moxley, 1985).

The fascinating possibilities presented by Dr. Fell's theories must be tempered with some hard-nosed skepticism. An openness to new possibilities and a willingness to ask hard questions about the supporting evidence are both required to advance our knowledge of prehistory. This balance between creativity and skepticism is what makes science work. Hopefully the reader now has a better idea of what is science and what isn't. And hopefully you will ask the hard questions and demand the evidence (be a critical thinker) when you see the Man Site gorget, or anything else, as "irrefutable evidence" that ancient Celts were wandering through our Mountain State.

References Cited

Brashler, J.G.
1987     A Middle 16th Century Susquehannock Village in Hampshire County; West Virginia, West Virginia Archeologist 39(2): 1-30.

Cazeau, C.J., and S.D. Scott, Jr.
1979     Exploring the Unknown, Da Capo Press, Inc., New York, NY.

Fell, B.
1983     Christian Messages in Old Irish Script Deciphered from Rock Carvings in W. Va., Wonderful West Virginia 47(l): 12-19.

Gallagher, I.J.
1983     Light Dawns on West Virginia Prehistory, Wonderful West Virginia 47(l): 7-11.

Goddard, I., and W.W. Fitzhugh
1978     Information from the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. (Position paper on Barry Fell's 1876 theories as explained in his book, America, B.C.)

Judge, J.
1988     Exploring Our Forgotten Century, National Geographic, March: 330-363.

Lesser, W.H.
1983     Cult Archeology Strikes Again: A Case for Pre-Columbian Irishmen in the Mountain State?, West Virginia Archeologist 35(2): 48-52.

Moxley, R.W.
1985     Recent Excavations at the Man Site (46LG5), West Virginia Archeologist 37(l): 44-46.

Pyle, R.L.
1986     Vestiges: Artifacts Found in West Virginia Soil, Wonderful West Virginia 50(4): 28-3 1.

Whittlesey, C.
1872     Archeological Frauds - Inscriptions Attributed to the Mound Builders - Three Remarkable Forgeries. Historical and Archaeological Tracts No. 9, Western Reserve Historical Society, Cleveland, OH.

1876     Archeological Frauds. Historical and Archaeological Tracts No. 33, Western Reserve and Northern Ohio Historical Society, Cleveland, OH.

1879     The Grave Creek Inscribed Stone, Historical and Archaeological Tracts, No. 44, Western Reserve and Northern Ohio Historical Society, Cleveland, OH.

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West Virginia Archeologist: Hunter Lesser on cult archaeology
West Virginia Archeologist: Oppenheimer and Wirtz look at Fell's methodology
Wonderful West Virginia:      Robert L. Pyle on pre-Columbian contacts
West Virginia Archeologist: Hunter Lesser looks for pseudoscience, and finds it
Wonderful West Virginia:      Ida Jane Gallagher finds a "solstice alignment"
West Virginia Archeologist: Roger Wise looks for that "solstice alignment" again
Wonderful West Virginia:      Barry Fell deciphers Christian messages
A second opinion:                  A very different translation of Horse Creek
West Virginia Archeologist: Janet Brashler looks for all possible explanations, and tests them